by Peter Beaumont, Gaby Hinsliff and Paul Harris – The Observer
Senior American officials concluded at the beginning of last May that there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, The Observer has learnt.
Intelligence sources, policy makers and weapons inspectors familiar with the details of the hunt for WMD told The Observer it was widely known that Iraq had no WMD within three weeks of Baghdad falling, despite the assertions of senior Bush administration figures and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
The new revelation came as White House sources indicated that President George Bush was considering establishing an investigation into the intelligence, despite rejecting an inquiry the previous day.
The disclosure that US military survey teams sent to visit suspected sites of WMD, and intelligence interviews with Iraqi scientists and officials, had concluded so quickly that no major weapons or facilities would be found is certain to produce serious new embarrassment on both sides of the Atlantic.
According to the time-line provided by the US sources, it would mean that Number 10 would have been aware of the US doubts that weapons would be found before the outbreak of the feud between Number 10 and Andrew Gilligan, and before the exposure of Dr David Kelly as Gilligan’s source for his claims that the September dossier had been ‘sexed up’ to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Officials Knew Intelligence Was ‘Probably Wrong’
It would suggest too that some officials who defended the 24 September dossier in evidence before the Hutton inquiry did so in the knowledge that the pre-war intelligence was probably wrong. Indeed, comments from a senior Washington official first casting serious doubt on the existence of WMD were put to Downing Street by The Observer – and rejected – as early as 3 May.
Among those interviewed by The Observer was a very senior US intelligence official serving during the war against Iraq with an intimate knowledge of the search for Iraq’s WMD.
‘We had enough evidence at the beginning of May to start asking, “where did we go wrong?”,’ he said last week. ‘We had already made the judgment that something very wrong had happened [in May] and our confidence was shaken to its foundations.’
US Intelligence Officer Says Criticism Was ‘Suppressed’
The source, a career intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity, was also scathing about the massive scale of the failure of intelligence over Iraq both in the US and among its foreign allies — alleging that the intelligence community had effectively suppressed dissenting views and intelligence.
The claim is confirmed by other sources, as well as figures like David Albright, a former UN nuclear inspector with close contacts in both the world of weapons inspection and intelligence.
‘It was known in May,’ Albright said last week, ‘that no one was going to find large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. The only people who did not know that fact was the public.’
The new disclosure follows the claims last week by Dr David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, a hawk who believed Iraq retained prohibited weapons, that he now believed that the alleged stockpiles ‘had never existed’.
It also comes as the House and Senate intelligence committees, which have been hearing evidence on why no weapons have been found, prepare to publish their reports this month.
Although it is expected that they will conclude that there was no political interference in the intelligence process, as some critics have alleged, the reports are expected to be damning about the quality of the intelligence that led to war.
The revelation is likely to lead to increased pressure both in Britain and the United States for an inquiry into the intelligence marshalled in favour of war.
Bush & Cheney Accused of ‘Manipulating Pre-war Intelligence’
In recent weeks Bush has come under concerted pressure over the issue, with Democratic presidential candidates accusing both him and Vice-President Dick Cheney of manipulating pre-war intelligence to make the case for invasion.
White House sources said that President Bush is considering the formation of an independent panel to investigate pre-war intelligence on Iraq that he used to justify going to war.
Aides are discussing it with congressional officials, sources familiar with the discussions said last night.
Bush had rejected an independent investigation amid White House fears of a political witch-hunt by Democrats hoping to unseat him in elections this year, but began in recent days to reconsider the position.
‘I want the American people to know that I, too, want to know the facts,’ Bush told reporters on Friday.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a range of options for such a panel was being explored and that an agreement was hoped for soon.
The White House would not comment.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain broke party ranks to join Democratic demands for an independent probe into how US intelligence got it wrong, given the failure by searchers to find weapons of mass destruction.